Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

NRL: Sam Tomkins - The man from nowhere

Sam Tomkins.
Sam Tomkins.

He will come to the Warriors touted as one of the best players in the world - but there was a time when Sam Tomkins wasn't sure if he would make it in the sport.

Tomkins, who made a fleeting promotional visit to Auckland over the past seven days, was far from an instant sensation at his hometown club. As a teenager, he found himself at a crossroads, unsure if he would find a place in the professional game.

"I got to 16 and I was far from one of the best players," Tomkins told the Herald on Sunday.

"Wigan were signing kids at 16 from school and paying them thousands of pounds but they said to me 'No, you're on a pay-as-you-play deal; you'll play in the under-18s team and if you get picked and win, you get 25 ($49), that's it'."

At the end of that season, Tomkins, a lifelong Wigan fan, was still at the back of the queue.

"I did that for 12 months and half the time I didn't get picked - there were plenty of guys ahead of me - which meant you didn't get paid," recalls Tomkins. "They said, 'you can leave if you want. Or you can stay and do the 25 deal again'. At the time, it was [now Warriors general manager of football] Dean Bell making those decisions, as he was in charge of youth development. I wasn't sure, to be honest, but I stuck with it and later that season, I got offered a proper contract. Things kicked on from there."

Bell's initial reticence is ironic, given he was the major architect of the plan to bring Tomkins to Mt Smart. Bell's faith in 2009 was rewarded soon after, as Tomkins enjoyed an explosive debut against Whitehaven in the Challenge Cup.

"It was ridiculous," laughs Tomkins. "I scored five tries and it has been a whirlwind since then. I hadn't been known at all - then suddenly I was on the front and back pages. In town, people would want pictures and autographs and I remember thinking, 'Sh**, this has got a bit real'. It all exploded from there."

The focus won't diminish in the Southern Hemisphere, as Tomkins is one of the highest profile NRL signings of the past decade. He talks constantly of representing his family and friends, though his mother is upset that he is leaving.

"My Mum doesn't like it," says Tomkins. "She came out and said 'you'll like it but don't go'. She has been getting bloody emotional for the last six months ... [she] doesn't like the idea that I'll be 12,000 miles away. However, my Dad couldn't give a sh** - he said 'you'll be fine' - and he thinks he is going to get free holidays."

Tomkins flies home tomorrow for final farewells, before returning in a few weeks for pre-season training. His agenda will include a seven-hour sitting to complete a large Phoenix tattoo that covers his back and stomach ("I hate it, I cry like a girl, but I like the look of it") while he also has tattoos to commemorate each major Wigan triumph.

"I can't wait to come back and get into it," says Tomkins. "It's going to be a huge challenge but I feel like I am coming into the best years of my career, so the timing is perfect."

- Herald on Sunday

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